Budget traveller Jessica Gregson braves rain, high exchange rates and nul points for the sake of drama, scenery and scale in Norway
Given that Norway is one of the few places in Europe more expensive, and with worse weather than Scotland, it’s not one of the most obvious destinations for a summer holiday. But for those who appreciate quirky historic towns, dramatic scenery and a lack of tourists in search of scorching sunshine and cheap beer, it can be a welcome change from southern Europe at the height of summer.
Oslo is a friendly, compact city, but expensive and lacking in obvious sights to see, so after only one night there we followed the tourist trail across disconcertingly snowy mountains – in June – to Bergen, in the heart of fjord country. It’s on journeys like this that Norway comes into its own: travel is inexpensive, the spectacular scenery is free, and, especially in summer, when it never gets completely dark, it’s much less of a hardship to forego pubs and restaurants for the sake of your budget.
We arrive in Bergen to torrential rain, which is, apparently, standard. Bergen has over 200 wet days a year, but given that the city is packed with galleries, an art complex in an old sardine factory and, intriguingly, a Leprosy Museum there is plenty to do under cover. And besides, the clouds tumbling down the steep mountains surrounding the town only serve to make Bergen feel more atmospheric. Damp, but atmospheric.
There are barely any holiday-makers to be found in Norway anyway, but venturing outside Oslo and Bergen takes you decidedly off the tourist routes, which was exactly why we spent several hours on a bus, toiling along the coast, through the mountains and across a number of fjords to Ålesund.
Ålesund has a very different feel to other coastal Norwegian towns, and for good reason: the entire wooden town burnt to the ground in 1904, and was rebuilt in a rather austere, Scandinavian version of art nouveau. The result is a beautiful, intriguing and laid-back city, set on a long spit of land with a backdrop of off-shore islands to one side, and snow-capped mountains to the other. There’s loads to explore within the town and it’s also an excellent base for visiting the islands or doing a spot of hiking.
Norway’s west coast is studded with fjords, which means that getting from A to B, or even Å to Å is a difficult and arduous process: Ålesund to Oslo requires a two hour bus journey to Åndalsnes before you can connect to a railway line. Happily, the journey from Ålesund to Åndalsnes is absolutely spectacular, with jagged mountains reflected in still, deep fjords, and the journey from Åndalsnes back to Oslo is better still (as long as you’re a bit of a thrill-seeker): the Rauma train line takes a perilous route through the Trollstiggen mountains, performing vertiginous switch-backs from one side of the valley to the other, past 300m waterfalls and rock walls a thousand metres high.
Travelling through a country where the drama of the scenery makes the journeys themselves destinations in their own right, made us forcibly appreciate the sheer scale and size of Norway, beside which our own Highlands look a bit like gently rolling hillocks.
Ryanair flies from Prestwick Airport to Torp, an hour and a half south of Oslo. For more information, see www.visitnorway.com
Three to see
Oslo - The Viking Ship Museum
Relive your primary-school enthusiasm for Scandinavian warriors. This museum boasts the two best-preserved Viking ships in the world, both of which date from the ninth century. Household utensils, textiles and sledges are also on show. www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk
Bergen - Bergen Fish Market
Wander into the town centre and hit the Bergen fish market. Tourists constantly remark on how vast the selection is, so sample the freshly boiled shrimps or the crab claws, and eat on the picturesque shoreline. www.torgetibergen.no
Emblemsfjellet Mountain is just 20 minutes out of Alesund and it is well worth the short detour from the town centre. There is a lift to the top up the north side of the mountain and the views of the area are spectacular.